Tuesday 5 January 2010

If I Had a Million (1932)

Directors: Ernst Lubitsch, Norman Taurog, Stephen Roberts, Norman Z McLeod, James Cruze, William A Seiter and H Bruce Humberstone
Stars: Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, George Raft, Jack Oakie, Richard Bennett, Charlie Ruggles, Alison Skipworth, W C Fields, Mary Boland, Roscoe Karns and May Robson
Here's an old chestnut of a concept, but put together with an astounding set of names right in the middle of the precode era. What would you do if you had a milion bucks? Well, eight people here get the opportunity to show us what they would do, because a shock haired tycoon decides that setting this up is what he's going to do with his fortune. He's John Glidden, a gloriously irascible character in the Lionel Barrymore mould, though he's played by Richard Bennett. He's about to die and he knows it, but he doesn't trust any of his family or his business associates and he wants his money to do something. So he picks eight names at random from the city directory, presumably the 1932 version of the phone book, though he does skip over John D Rockefeller for obvious reasons.

You can imagine the fun just by looking at who plays the parts: Charlie Ruggles, W C Fields, Charles Laughton, May Robson, even Gary Cooper. Beyond the cast, there are seven credited directors, including such names as Norman Taurog, Ernst Lubitsch and Norman Z McLeod. There are no less than sixteen writers, including Lubitsch again and Joseph L Mankiewicz, plus Robert Hardy Andrews who wrote the original short story called Windfall that sparked the film. Having what seems like everyone in Hollywood sticking their oar in may suggest too many cooks inevitably spoiling the broth but the picture is split up into eight vignettes utterly separate except for the linking theme of Glidden and his cheques and the different styles used and approaches taken constitute a real gourmet selection. Bennett appears in a number of the sections but not all of them, and of course he gets a prologue and epilogue to wrap it all together.

Charlie Ruggles is the first recipient, playing a man called Henry Peabody who is henpecked both at home and at work. He can escape from his wife for the most part by locking himself in the bathroom but he can't escape his boss, Otto K Bullwinkle, at work. He got a five buck raise with his promotion to the china shop but it's costing him $11.60 in expenses a week just for the crockery he breaks. With a million bucks, he can get past his surreal nightmares and have the time of his life playing bull in that china shop. Contrary to what you might expect, not all of these stories are about someone having the time of their life, and those that do come in very different shapes and sizes. For instance Violet Smith has the time of her life knowing that she can finally take off her hose because she just doesn't need it any more. She's a prostitute, played by Wynne Gibson, who escapes the next sailor in line and books the best room in a hotel, just so she can sleep alone.

Some of the stories are tough. You know that anyone played by George Raft has to be at least a little shady, for instance, so we're hardly surprised to find that he's a three time convicted forger who's just escaped trying to pass yet another forged cheque. He gets his million dollars from Glidden but you can imagine how much trouble he's going to have trying to cash that cheque. John Wallace is an innocent man on death row, or as least perhaps not quite as guilty as they've made him out, and he believes he's only there because he couldn't afford a lawyer good enough to see justice done. Gene Raymond gets the toughest episode by far as Wallace, not just because he's not going to get the retrial he wants so badly. Somehow the fact that he won't get the opportunity to tell his wife is the saddest thing in the whole movie.
One vignette is simplicity itself. Phineas V Lambert works in one of those huge offices we see in thirties movies where everyone has a desk neatly lined up in formation. He goes to see Mr Brown, the president of his company, just to blow a raspberry at him. The most stunning thing is how astoundingly short this part is for a name as important as Charles Laughton and yet the segment is utterly perfect. While that's the subtlest wish fulfilment episode, the least subtle is the one that pairs Alison Skipworth with W C Fields as the La Rues, Emily and Rollo. They used to be circus folks but now they run a tea room and get pestered by road hogs, who trash their new car on the day it's delivered. They take their revenge by buying a slew of solidly built vehicles and turning the roads into a demolition derby, meting out their own delicious brand of justice. The Boondock Saints just isn't in the same ballpark.

And talking of ballparks, we do get to Gary Cooper in the end. He's a US marine called Steve Gallagher, who seems to spend most of his time in the guard house with his buddies, played by Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns, where they bet huge amounts of imaginary money on dice games to pass the time. Given that it's April Fool's Day when Glidden turns up with his million dollar cheque, they promptly kick him out and think they do well by conning Zeb, the local soda pop stand owner, into giving them ten bucks for it so they can take his assistant to the carnival. As the pride of the marines, Gary Cooper shows how bad he is at throwing balls. Ten years later as The Pride of the Yankees he'd do just a little better.

And we end with May Robson, which is an astute choice, even a year before Lady for a Day. She's Mary Walker and she lives at Idylwood, a rest place for elderly women, where they pretend their husbands are still alive and read the obituaries to see who they know who's passed on. Mrs Garvey runs the place and does everything she can to make their lives happy, but ends up achieving the absolute opposite, given that she's one of those moral sorts who thinks she knows best when she doesn't. She tucks their blankets in at the end of the bed and confiscates their cards because they generate ill feeling. She won't even let Mary bake biscuits in the kitchen or bring in a kitten because cats are disease carriers. With a million dollars in her pocket, Idylwood promptly becomes the Idylwood Club, reserved for members only, and she has a special, very clever, punishment for the staff.

I haven't laughed aloud so much at a movie in a long time. This is a real gem of a film and until TCM showed it as part of a set of W C Fields movies I hadn't even heard of it. The vignettes work well on their own and put together they work well as an anthology of linked stories. I wonder how the other segments would have tied in, given that there were three more intended but which didn't make it. One featured Cary Grant and Miriam Hopkins; another starred Sylvia Sidney, Carole Lombard and Fredric March. The latter wasn't completed because of financial issues, March apparently unwilling to do retakes without being paid for them. The former may not even have been filmed.

If only they'd had DVDs with special features and deleted scenes back in the precode days. I'd have bought this in a heartbeat and I may just have to try to track down episodes of a show it inspired in the fifties called The Millionaire, though that apparently didn't follow the random logic that Glidden uses here and added instead some sort of prior knowledge of who would receive the money and why it would be so important. For now it's great to be reminded yet again that however deep I dig into those precodes, there are still gems left to be uncovered.

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